THE SUNNING OF THE BUDDHA FESTIVAL
JULY 1990

Hanah Exley

We stepped off the plane in Langzhou (lahng-zho) a city situated on the Yalu River in the far Northwest corner of China. Carol and I met on the plane from the States and would be roommates for the balance of the tour that would meet us in Xining (sh-ning), giving us the rest of the day to search for adventure in Langzhou. Coming from the airport we “hand-talked” to families harvesting wheat, watched roof tiles being formed and set to dry in the sun, and bought white peaches which were just harvested and sold alongside the road. They were juicy and delicious.

On the way to our hotel our guides took us to a Taoist monastery [click image] and we found artifacts that were unusual and irresistible. I bought a yak tail wand, used for sweeping away evil spirits; two walnuts carved with plants, ghosts, and many Buddhas—all on one walnut; and a gourd about the size of a large walnut, carved with a story of three beautiful ladies lounging in a garden filled with plants and trees. They were astonishing—so small, the work so delicate.

At our hotel another guide met us and she took us to a park where a festival was in progress. This festival allowed anyone, who so desired, to stand in front of a microphone on the stage and vent their joys, angers and/or complaints in public, in song. Even though we couldn’t understand a word, it was priceless, something one would never see in the States. All of the men were dressed in Mao-dark-blue with caps. The women mostly wore traditional dress.      

Carol and I caused quite a stir when we stepped into that park. Carol is very tall, slim in her 40’s. I am 5'6", white-haired, plump and 63 [in 1990]. Whenever we stopped walking we were hemmed-in with people. They were tiny, 5' tall (or less) with jet-black hair and eyes. Their mouths dropped open at the sight of these strange creatures. The women pinched my arms and bosoms and then gave me a thumbs-up sign—congratulating me for being fat and old, I guess. They just looked at Carol’s height in awe. It finally was apparent that we were disrupting the festival, so we left, exhausted from so much attention. I do remember, vividly, the feeling that I had come home, that I was in a country where I felt complete. In the subsequent seven years of traveling and working in China, that feeling never left me.

The next morning we settled ourselves on the train. Our seats were next to the window and we were able to purchase food—roasted corn on the cob from the vendors at the frequent stops to pick up more passengers.

There were many people heading to Xining to participate in the Sunning of the Buddha Festival. This is an annual affair attracting Tibetan Buddhists from all over, but most particularly those areas in China adjacent to Tibet. The Tibetans don’t really look Chinese. Their skin has a warmer tone and I would imagine that their heritage contains a lot of the Mongol. Most of the difference is the serenity and welcome that their eyes and faces project. It is almost indescribable, but every person I have talked to about Tibetans and Buddhism recognizes this unique characteristic.

We arrived in Xining in time for dinner where we were introduced to our fellow travelers. Carol and I were feeling a little iffy after all the food we had eaten on the train, so we settled for yak yogurt that I will proclaim is “the best yogurt in the world!”

Early the next morning we drove to the Ta’er lamasery where the present Dalai Lama, a yellow hat Buddhist, spent the first four years of his life. We were to wait for the monks to bring the ancient, appliqued and embroidered silk tapestry from the monastery. It was rolled up, 50 yards long, and would be carried to the site of the Sunning on the shoulders of many monks. The men of the village ran back and forth under the tapestry between the monks, knowing that this would bring them luck for the next year. We followed the entourage. The excitement and energy built up as we began to feel the powerful force of this event. It was a lovely, warm summer day. There were thousands of people waiting, very few foreigners, so we were also a focus of curiosity. Through some unknown courtesy an eight-foot passage was left open in the middle of this massive crowd. One used it only to move from one viewpoint to another.

The monks moved up the side of the hill and laid the tapestry across the entire hilltop.

Then they walked around to the front of the roll and began to open the tapestry
by backing down the hillside.

The face of the sacred cloth was covered with a thin yellow silk.

When it was completely unrolled, the monks above gathered-in the silk...

...exposing the face of a black Buddha surrounded by his Guardians.

There were no cheers, no applause, no yelling—just a quiet reverence honoring this magnificent representation of the Beloved Buddha. Two men broke from the crowd, slipped under the front edge of the tapestry and began to slither on their stomachs toward the top of the hill. The strength of their belief system, with them since the day of their birth, must have filled them not only with His compassion, but also the certainty that their effort would draw from Him a state of grace that would carry them throughout the next year. He would remain on the hillside all day in the sun and then be returned to his sarcophagus to sleep for another year.

The monks then gathered to parade through the village playing all of their traditional instruments; horns, drums, and flutes, and they carried many prayer flags. One cannot call the sound musical. A better description would be visceral. It is a cacophony of banging, screeching, and moaning that catches one right in the belly.

We followed the parade into the village, taking pictures of the monks, the women in their traditional dress, the two stupas, and—of all things—a pig rooting in the mud. An old man kept following me and speaking to me in Chinese. I kept shrugging my shoulders and opening my hands intimating that I didn’t understand what he wanted. Finally, someone translated that he only wanted to know how old I was. I told him with my fingers and he just beamed as he nodded, implying, “Me too.”

There were several shops, as well as villagers sitting on the road, selling weavings and jewelry, just the things that I might use in my wearable art projects. There was a wealth of choices, but I stayed mostly with the classic Tibetan look of bright hand-woven stripes in wool and turquoise, coral, z-beads, and silver jewelry. The choice was never again as rich as it was that year. I guess it is because after 1990 the Communist government allowed the villagers to sell in open-air markets and the tourists began to come into the country in greater numbers.

The next day our group returned early to the lamasery to participate in the morning meditation. As we approached we could hear the great long horns positioned on the corners of the inner sanctuary calling to the four directions. The sound was so deep and full that it sent shudders through my entire body. I remember entering a room filled with rows of deep red, woven-wool cushions. From the ceiling hung layered silken columns made up of pointed strips of rich, colorful brocade, each different than the next. The many posts supporting the ceiling were wrapped in intricate weavings telling the endless history of Tibetan mythology. By the time we took our seats I was in tears, simply overwhelmed by the energy and beauty of the place.

If you have ever heard the Gyoto monks chant, you can transport yourself into that morning meditation. There is a leader who makes the calls, and the monks answer. It is a continuous sound, so profoundly deep and full that it shuts away thought and allows you to be at one with your Spirit, your Beloved, your God.

After the meditation we were given the opportunity to greet the head Lama, an elegant figure with a long beard and beautiful twinkly eyes. He carried his prayer beads in his hands and greeted each one of us with a blessing. We then proceeded to pass by and turn the large prayer wheels filled with rolls of thin paper with the Sanskrit words “Om Mani Padme Hum.” It is believed that as you spin the wheels, the meaning of the words go into the atmosphere, spreading compassion throughout the human race. One can frequently see Tibetans spinning individual prayer wheels (always clockwise) as they walk through their daily lives.

Later that day we participated as spectators in the sacred dances that would complete the Sunning of the Buddha ceremony. These dances go on for hours. The first person to enter the arena is a schoolmaster of sorts. He directs the dances, sometimes with great humor. They are very structured, are repeated several times, and are traditionally the battle between good and evil. The costumes range from ferocious to amusing. The Tibetans will dash in to touch a particular dancer for luck. As in real life, neither good nor evil wins.

The collage to the left was created out of many of my photographs. Although totally unplanned, the image looks like a great chalice holding the continuing heritage of Tibetan Buddhism. [Click to see larger version.]

Behold, the jewel in the lotus.


©2003 Hanah Exley